Organization for Creative People – Why Your Brain May Be Keeping You From ‘Getting Things Done’

Messy desk

Photo by EvelynGiggles

This room looks like a tornado went through!  How on earth do you ever find anything in this mess?

Sound familiar?

Most creative people have had a version of this conversation at some point in their lives, be it with a parent, a friend or partner, or a well-meaning mentor or teacher.

Invariably, the offered solution was a thorough cleaning, perhaps accompanied by a purge of the piles and a new, shiny filing system.  

But what happened when the dust settled and you tried to go back to the project?  

Chances are you had difficulty picking it back up. You went to pull out all the things you needed, and within hours the desk was just as covered as it had been prior to the intervention.

Who Do I Think You Are?

Despite what your mother might have thought, you’re not genetically incapable of organization.  You’re gifted with the Fantastical personality type, and you have a unique ability to dive into a difficult problem and emerge, hours (or days) later with a perfect solution.  

But in order to do this you need to keep all the pieces of the problem in front of you. If it’s not within eyesight, it might as well not exist.

Anything repetitive is the antithesis of what you naturally find attractive – in your mind, the problems have been solved or the decision has already been made, so what’s the point in going through it again on paper?

But how can I possibly know your type when I’ve never even met you?

I’ll admit I could be wrong. But I’ve worked with a lot of creative entrepreneurs since I first started this line of research a year ago, and almost all of them were Fantasticals. I’m one myself – we’re incredibly creative, and we’re always coming up with new ideas to tinker with.

Chances are you’ve never been able to keep focus on a single project for weeks on end. You may spend a few days working on one thing, but there’s always something else standing off to the side, waiting for your attention.

And where does the term Fantastical come from? I’m sure you’ve never heard of this particular personality designation before. It’s based on the work of Katherine Benziger, whose brilliant PhD thesis elaborated on the the idea of falsifying type and working in harmony with our natural strengths.

I’ve taken that and adapted it to organization, time management and productivity. My adaption includes four typesFantastical, Analytical, Environmental and Structural. I can’t say there’s anything scientific behind the names. I chose them because I found them more user-friendly than the original basal right, basal left, frontal right and frontal left.

Since I’m guessing you’re a Fantastical, I’m going to use this post to show you how to construct an environment that accommodates your brain while still allowing you to contribute your essential abilities to the world around you.

(If you think I’m wrong about your type, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to give you type-specific tips!)

Forget Filing

To start off with, let’s ditch your filing system.  It’s been months since you put anything into it anyway, so it’s just serving to hide things that you need to keep in front of you.

Clear off enough space on your desk to create a pile for each project you’re working on. Contrary to popular belief, you do know exactly what’s in all of those piles, and you need to keep them front and center where you can see them.

If your desk is too small, clear off space on the floor or hang a shelf at face level above your desk to serve as a place to store the ideas you’re working on.

Once you finish with an idea, move the entire pile to a folder, binder or box and put it into long term storage. Feel free to cull papers from the pile, but it’s really not necessary.  The goal here is to make space for your next ideas, but still keep the important pieces in a place where you can find what you need in one to two minutes.

If you have the space, you can break your project piles into sub-projects, but only if you truly feel the need.  Each additional category makes the system more complex, and most Fantasticals would much prefer to spend their complexity on their ideas than their environment.

Keep the Big Picture in Front of You

Second, try to clear off enough wall space for a piece of poster board in an area that you see daily.

Divide the board into twelve equal pieces, one for each month.  Then take a big permanent marker and write in the target months for each project you’re working on. Having them right in front of you will remind you of their existence and help overcome your tendency to get caught up in your newest idea.

If your files are primarily digital you’ll have a bit more of a challenge, but also a lot more flexibility.

Just like you would create project piles in the physical world, create project folders in the digital world. Keep them simple and logical – for example, I keep all my business related files in one folder with each project in a separate sub-folder. When there are logical categories within a sub-folder, I’ll create a tag or folder for them, but I don’t worry if I have files floating around in my Business folder that don’t have a specific location.

When it comes to ideas, digital storage offers some amazing advantages to physical space. One of my absolute favorite programs is called Personal Brain, which allows you to create mind-map style idea webs where you can draw connections between nodes and attach images, screen shots, documents and pdf files to the appropriate places.

Being able to see your ideas spread out on a screen is tremendously helpful when it comes to making connections between them and pulling in additional information to build them up to bigger and better levels.

“Yes, But…”

Maybe the Fantastical personality sounds great, but just… not exactly you.  There are three other types to consider.

If you’re a creative entrepreneur but you don’t think you’re a Fantastical, chances are you’re an Analytical.  This type is a great big picture thinker and is extremely motivated and goal oriented.

Or you could be an Environmental, the type that is focused on the people around them and whether the environment is welcoming and comfortable.  

Chances are you’re not a Structural (I’ve only met one creative entrepreneur who was a Structural), but I’ll bet you know someone who is.  Structurals thrive on routines and systems, are great at organization and write the vast majority of books on time management and organization.

What Do You Make of This?

Do you think the Fantastical is an accurate representation of your talents?

If not, what type do you think you are?

Have you used any of the techniques in this article, and if so, are they helpful to your organization and work flow?

About the Author: Kirsten Simmons is an author and coach. Interested in learning more about the Productivity Personality Theory?  Come by Personalized Productivity to take a short quiz to determine your personality type and get more tips to create your custom systems for time management, organization and productivity!

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

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Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

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Responses to this Post


  1. Ha! This is so reassuring to hear, as I type this amidst four different piles of things (and, yup, I know what’s in each pile!). I’m so glad I don’t have to *actually* file them.

    Seriously, the larger idea here is so helpful. There’s something about that messiness, that lack of diligent filing, that tornado-like chaos that other people see, that allows us creative types to make connections we wouldn’t make otherwise, and push our ideas further and sharper and grander. This is such a nice guide to help us embrace that mental approach rather than feel bad that our desk is buried in trinkets and papers. Thanks for the post!

    • Thank you!

      I personally think it has something to do with seeing what’s in front of you and being able to make connections based on that. My Fantastical business partner even has to take the vegetable drawers out of her fridge, because if she doesn’t see the food she’s bought, she’ll forget that it’s there until it goes bad!

  2. I smiled broadly as I read this, Kirsten, because it is exactly how I have organized my work for decades. Piles, not files!

    A variation of this is the system Twyla Tharp described in her book about her process. Everything for a particular project, or possibly useful for it, gets thrown into its own box.

    In other venues I am so used to reading the opposite advice about getting rid of all the clutter and working in a minimalist space. different strokes for different folks!

    I don’t use a big wallboard but I do use visual maps and typically have one binder that is “idea scribble central” for each project.

    • It doesn’t surprise me to hear that Twyla Tharp uses a similar system – I read her book on collaboration and she struck me as a Fantastical. I’ll have to move her Creative Habit book further up my reading list. (I assume that’s the one you’re referring to?)

      “Idea scribble central” is a brilliant term!

      Thanks for reading!

  3. “A cluttered desk is the sign of genius.”

  4. Wait a minute… How did you find a picture of my desk??

  5. Wow, you have almost completely defined me to a T. I could take photos of my desk and show you each pile and what it’s for. I used to carry ten or twelve books up the stairs to my bedroom at night because if I was working on something, I needed them all. I have books upon books upon books on my bookshelves that I have never read because I want to read them at some point and I have to have them on my shelves or I might forget. I’ve wondered if this is part of the reason I have problems getting started and then maintaining any momentum I have. I’ll definitely be checking out your blog!

    • I’m exactly the same way! The books are overflowing in my apartment… but what I found to help was keeping them out of my office unless I’m specifically working on them. I’m an almost even split between Fantastical and Analytical, so that way I can see what I’m working on but I’m not exposed to the things I could be working on, if that makes sense?

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      • Makes very good sense. I need to clean my desk off and put everything into it’s different stack. I also like the idea of having a visual reminder–right in front of me–of my ultimate goal, of what I am working towards. I could even break it down into parts and note each accomplishment as I make it…

        I took the quiz and I would LOVE to learn more. Do you have a blog rather than just the quiz that I could follow? I’m definitely there.

        • We’re working on getting a blog up and running, but in the meantime we have a number of articles that go out to the list. And we’re working on a special report that we’ll send to all the list subscribers in the next few days (hopefully) on scheduling and time management for each type.

  6. I laughed to myself when I saw the picture and read the caption. I wish my desk were that neat and pretty! :p The caption reminds me of all the times my HIGHLY Structural and Analytical roommate used to see my cluttered room, or papers on the dining table, and make such exclamations as, “This place looks like a pigsty!” She had probably the lowest tolerance for clutter out of anyone I’ve known—she couldn’t even handle too many pictures on the wall! Needless to say that living with her, I resented such comments, and it affected my self-esteem. If one lives in a pigsty, then that implies one is a pig as well.

    I definitely see myself in the Fantastical type. I have to see things out in the open to remember they’re there at all, and my mess becomes dysfunctional mainly when there’s so much stuff that I can’t find what I need quickly or identify what’s in or under a pile of papers or things. I’m definitely someone who forgets about the veggies in the veggie drawer, to the point where they all spoil!

    I’m wondering what organizational tips could you offer for Environmentals and Analyticals? I see myself in the Analytical and Environmental types too, and I doubt that most of us are totally one type or another.

    • Beth, I am with you on this. Anyone who knows me would also call me analytical (at least in the usual sense of the word) as well as “environmental” in the sense in which Kirsten uses the word.

      I have found that the work style Kirsten describes in this blog entry works great for me as a hybrid character.

    • Beth and Fritzie, it’s entirely possible to be a combination of multiple types. I didn’t get into it in the post, but everyone has one primary type that comes naturally, and one or more secondary types that vary in strength depending on the influences around us. I’ve worked with clients who vary from almost entirely one type to even splits between types. Based on the fact that both of you mention needing to see things to work on them, I’d say you’re both primary Fantasticals, because that trait isn’t present in any other type. So you’ll want to build your ideal systems around the Fantastical traits, but also incorporate some other type traits in as appropriate. Environmentals, for example, often want their surroundings to be comfortable and attractive, so you may take that into account when considering office supplies or storage pieces. And Analyticals often find that their productivity increases when they can connect their current work to their big picture goals. A good way to combine that with the Fantastical primary is to have the goals posted somewhere you can see them as you work, so that you regularly make that connection back.

      Does that help?

      • Hi, Kristen. I didn’t mention needing to see things to work on them. When I said I am with Beth it was just in her mentioning that she has analytical and environmental aspects as well, and I find the piles work fine for me.

        I do keep my big picture ideas in mind, as you recommended above, though I don’t need them posted to remember them.

        Teachers nowadays often do post big ideas and also what we call Public Records, which are posters/displays that help us keep track as a class of where we are and what we are assembling. It is a useful tool for a group moving forward- or sideways- together!

  7. Oh my gosh! I’m not alone! My husband is the same way. Our house looks much worse than this, though. I’m starting to give things away, but more appears. I think it grows up through the floor overnight like the dragon’s teeth in the story.

  8. Whoa, thank you SO much! Other people look at my life and see a big mess. I look around and see all of my piles of stuff, with everything in plain sight and easy to find.

    When I do feel guilty and try to organize everything and put it all away, I lose so much time – not only all the time I spent “tidying”, but all the time I spend trying to find things afterwards.

    I’m especially interested in the first comment by Baker Lawler, about “that tornado-like chaos that other people see, that allows us creative types to make connections we wouldn’t make otherwise” – because I have been realizing these last few years that how I think is in terms of CONNECTIONS – not linear, not circular, but in this web of connections. And that one of my strengths as a writer is that I make connections that most other people would never see. (In fact, the ame of my blog is Connections!).

    So it is especially interesting that my organizational type (or, as some people might say, disorganizational type) relates to tis connection-oriented type of personality.

    Thank you!

    • If you haven’t read it already, Jacqueline, there’s a book that you would love – Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. It’s all about the networks and environments that foster good ideas, and it’s amazing. I did a whole series of posts based on it about six months back, on one of my other blogs, The Good Ship Lifestyle.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  9. Sweet! That’s me! That’s so me! I think it gave my boss heartburn when I was an office administrator. ^_^

    Sometimes I’ll sit down and organize things, but it’s hard to build up the heart to do it, because every time I’ve organized some major thing, someone else has “helpfully” undone it. Overall, though, I work in piles.

  10. At one point, I was the administrative assistant to eight real estate agents. The office I worked in had very nice, rather uptight people in it. Every day, I would come in, open a drawer, take out all of my projects and lay them out across my desk, and get to work. At the end of the day, I had to gather it all up and put it away so it didn’t make all the neatniks uncomfortable.
    I work at home now, and oddly enough, I’ve been trying for years to make myself keep things filed away in drawers. It doesn’t work! I just end up leaving everything on my desk that I need to do anything with, and because I feel guilty about it, I don’t even take the time to make stacks. It’s a mess!
    Thank you so much for this article. It was enlightening to realize that my natural organizational inclination was actually working with my brain, instead of against it. I am definitely going to go back to piles.

  11. I thought just visual artists need to see their projects in front of them, but now I see it is not just us.
    My computer desktop is more like your picture and a mess when I start working on projects (s). The excitement of finding piece and parts of my ideas doesn’t let me to save them on an organized way. But after I got item settled I start to organize them.

  12. This is the story of my life! It’s nice to see I’m not the only one!

  13. I would say I’m a Fantastical (maybe mixed with a bit of Environmental, except I like being around nature while I work vs. people). As of right now, I’m sitting on my porch enjoying the beginning stages of Hurricane Irene.

    But I usually see very little reason to keep things extra clean/organized. It’s a waste of time to me, especially when I already know where everything is. I think you hit my mindset spot-on when you said Fantasticals are more interested in the complexity of their ideas vs. the complexity of their environment/organization.

    Thanks a lot for writing this Kirsten.

  14. As I read through this post, I kept nodding my head in agreement thinking to myself “yep, that’s me.”

    I have an L-shaped desk. Dual-monitors. And over on the right-hand side, a bunch of papers, books, notes with hi-lights on them, a sketchbook for drawing mindmaps and my molekine for post ideas. Pretty much a mess.

    Through-out the day, I”l have my moments of brilliance. One idea, then another. And I have to clear EVERYTHING out just to focus on the one thing that’s in front of me.

    Heck, last night just as I was going to go to bed, it occurred to me that I have to redo my speaking page, so I redid an entire website to hi-light my work as a speaker. I stayed up 2.5 hours changing things, writing, creating pages, etc. It looks good, but I had to take that one project and just finish it, RIGHT now. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have slept well, heh.

    I”m not sure if that even falls into the same category of person you described, or something else. But I loved the post and have a few organization tips for myself as a result.

  15. E. Aileen T. says:

    Oh so Fantastical, Environmental, Analytical but also seriously infected with Sentimental. The “SOME DAY NEEDS” are powerfully prominent. All these wonderful traits eventually disabling fleeting thoughts of sanitary/organized spaciousness. Certainly happy I stumbled on your info and comments. Seem to be choking on ‘overwhelming’ while attempting to paint my picture.

  16. Wow. This describes me well. It’s very validating. I am not an entrepreneur though. My problem is, I do creative therapies with kids and I really struggle with the paperwork. I usually work all weekend and extra hours each day to keep up and am still behind. In school and in previous jobs, I was organized and made good grades, etc. The suggestions you provided are exactly what used to work for me. However, in this job they are not doable. I have 40 kid’s charts to maintain. Legal regulations require daily logging, filing and obviously nothing can be left in clear sight, due to confidentiality. Further, we have to constantly change focus. The day goes as such: greet family, meet with parent for 5-10 minutes, meet with child 45 minutes, say goodbye and schedule next appointment with parent, clean up paints, toys, etc. from session, write progress note, print (on shared printer), sign and file note, get the next kid, repeat. So your focus has to constantly change, and your space has to constantly adapt from play/art/ confidential space to office. On top if it we are working with traumatized kids, so sonetimes/often you feel emotional or disregulated after session. All other reports (and there are lots) and case management are to be completed during cancellations and no shows, which are unpredictable. Sorry this is so long, but do you have any tips for this type of brain, working in this type of environment. Or should I just change careers (-: thanks, A.

    • Kirsten says:

      Here’s a thought- do you find yourself writing similar phrases repeatedly? I’ll guess the answer is yes, given the nature of what you’re describing. What if you used text expander or a similar product and came up with a series of custom keyboard shortcuts to fill in the majority of the progress report? Then you could take a few minutes to customize and move on. Alternately, though I’m not sure of the legality given patient privacy, etc, you could record your thoughts and transcribe through a mechanical Turk. Or I think there’s a version of Dragon naturally speaking that transcribes in 30 second chunks.

  17. Ahhhhh….this article is music to my ears…just what I asked the Google God for. You described me perfectly and provided easy (duh, of course thats what I should do) solutions!!! is it to much to say I LOVE YOU. I’m going to put it into action and re-design my work space to accommodate my brain. The best part is about filing systems. I long ago gave them up when I realized anything that goes in a file cabinet is DEAD to me! Lost forever. I adore your plan and ideas and I am going to use them NOW. Thanks for sharing this!

  18. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ completely applies to me. If I put things away, I forget about much of it. That being said, I also enjoy organizing spaces—how can I be such a dichotomy? I also battle the children in my home, who see things they think are ‘cool’ and walk off with them, so I no longer know where things are anymore. I used to be able to go to a pile and pull out the item needed. Now I have to go to children and ask ‘where did you put it?’ or worse yet, ‘did you see me put it somewhere after I took it from your hands?’ It is great to know I’m not alone in needing to see what I have and am working on!

  19. This is awesome. I stumbled onto this after leaving a workshop frustrated because I couldn’t figure out if I’m left or right-brained. I think I’m both…or too indecisive to answer questions I don’t love. I’m very much like Anne above….working with people…loving all but the paperwork. I keep buying bright notebooks and folders and dry-erase boards….after many years I should have it down, but I don’t. My Google calendar and iphone reminders help me the most.

    I’m thrilled to have found this. You’ve described me perfectly!